• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 11th February, 2011

What science might learn at the supermarket

The local supermarket proudly offers its customers a choice between eight breeds of shopping cart. There’s a huge one for families doing the weekly shop, something neater for singletons dining alone. There’s one with a detachable back-end for easy loading. There’s even one with a flag on it to keep flag-waving infants amused.Some customers will surely bemoan the way something as basic as deciding which wheeled basket to put the week’s supply of beer, toilet tissue and potatoes in has been turned into a peculiar social identification process. They may laugh at the absurdity of a taxonomy of trolleys. Others will be more gracious and acknowledge an innocent attempt to make a chore more pleasurable. Of course, nothing a supermarket does is the result of anything less than painstaking calculation. In this case, the management is “microtargeting” – identifying small, well-defined subgroups and communicating with them about their individual needs and wants.In Microtrends, Mark J Penn (2007) describes how, as a pollster working for Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s, he identified just such a group. They came to be known as Soccer Moms – “busy suburban women devoted to their jobs and their kids, who had real concerns about real presidential policies”. Clinton zeroed in on this politically powerful voting bloc with policies aimed at helping them raise their children: drug-testing in schools, measures against teenage smoking, limits on violence in the media, a renewed interest in school uniforms. Penn cites this as an instance of a move from a one-size-fits-all societal model toward ‘nicheing’ – in those days represented by the triumph of the Starbucks economy, with its dumbfounding variations in cup size, coffee strength and topping, and a belief that the more choices people have the greater the satisfaction they will feel. Work of this nature acknowledges that while the programs that populate databases of effective models have been shown through repeated randomized controlled trials in real world settings to be effective, they may be more effective with some groups than with others. We need to know if this hypothesis holds water and, if it does, to develop adaptations that make a program more likely to work with sub-populations that currently miss out. The impulse to adapt will be familiar to anyone who has tried to encourage the uptake of a proven program at community level. But adaptation and fidelity have traditionally been seen as opponents. Developers have tended to argue that practitioners must implement with complete fidelity to maximize the likelihood of positive outcomes. Practitioners, on the other hand, usually favor flexibility, arguing that their grassroots expertise qualifies them to make adjustments to match the needs of the people they serve. It stands to reason that to be fixed on fidelity to the extent of giving no guidance about the type and amount of adaptation permissible for different recipients and contexts will limit practitioners’ capacity to tailor a program meaningfully. It is also likely to undermine professional autonomy and innovation.Equally, since it is only human to fiddle and creative ingenuity is only a small step beyond mere fiddling, program “drift” is inevitable. The problem is that some changes made in good faith are reactionary and likely to undermine a program’s impact. The resulting impasse has been identified as one of the main barriers to the widespread adoption of the ones that work best. One response has been to indicate in program materials and training manuals how closely practitioners implementing the materials need to stick to the text. To give an example, the PATHS instructor’s manual includes the following advice:

    It is important for you to follow certain aspects of these [lesson] scripts relatively closely… The language reflects the utilization of developmentally timed vocabulary. For example, the specific manner in which concepts are stated is especially important for such aspects as defining emotion words and explaining problem-solving steps. In addition, the sequencing within each lesson was carefully planned to facilitate discussions and dialogues at particular times. However, other components of the scripts can, and in some cases should, be altered by the teacher.
In that "licensed alterations" category it suggests using more developmentally appropriate language and altering pictures or problem situations to make them more relevant to particular student groups. Authors Carol Kusché and Matk Greenberg also include a chapter on tailoring the program for specific populations: children with hearing impairments, for example, the learning-disabled or cognitively-delayed and those with severe behavioral or emotional problems. Advice is given on pacing and repetition, maintaining attention and how to adapt role-plays and visual materials. Research studies have tested some of these versions. Program adaptations – particularly those made for different sub-population – should always be made and tested as part of a structured process. Otherwise nothing will be learned. Of course, this is only possible if we know which children we are talking about. As Mark J Penn points out, a "splintering society" is shaped by even the tiniest of groups; detecting them is a necessary but complex task:
    … in order to truly know what’s going on, we need better tools than just the naked eye and an eloquent tongue. We need the equivalent of magnifying glasses and microscopes, which in sociological terms are polls, surveys, and statistics. They take a slice of the matter being studies and lay it open – bigger and clearer – for examination.
As usual – all points to the importance of the accurate measurement of children’s well-being, but somewhere out on the parking lot the customization of the humble shopping cart might have something to offer prevention science.Nick Axford See Kusché CA and Greenberg M T (1994) PATHS Instructor’s Manual, South Deerfield MA: Channing-Bete andPenn M J with Kinney Kalsene E (2007) Microtrends, London: Penguin.For a longer version of this article and other associated research, see Journal of Children’s Services, Vol 4 No 1, September 2009

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